What can I say? The guy’s my best friend—but he’s a pathological liar. This morning, for instance. We are at the indie coffee shop, in a line-up moving as slow as Saturday on a long weekend. Norman places his order, saying, “It’s a lovely day for a latte,” and the barista gives him a second look before she touches her order screen. She takes a cup and asks for his name. “Sam,” he says. His eyes flicker to her name badge as she marks the cup. Then he says, “Juliet, I forgot… could you make it almond milk instead of cow’s?”
“Oh.” She glances at her screen.
“You don’t have to cancel the order and reissue a new one, do you?” he says, voice full of sudden concern. “I mean, they’re the same price…”
“Yes, I do have to reissue,” Juliet says. “It affects the data collection—and that tracks inventory.” Her face turns pink. “It’s no problem, though.” She’s a people-pleaser (as am I) and would rather do the extra work than disappoint.
“Oh, never mind, then,” Norm says. “I don’t want you to go to any trouble on my behalf. Keep it as it is.”
They have a little back-and-forth: “No, that’s okay,” “No, no, my bad—next time I’ll…” and Norm ends up with his usual two-percent-fat homogenized cow milk in a cup marked “Sam.” What was that all about, I wonder?
I have to hurry Norm along to the park if we’re going to meet the regular crew. From across the street I can see Biff and King and Ju-jube running in the grassy area and I want to join them right away but Norm plays it cool, holding his cup steady and my leash short. We obey the walk signal and make our way to the picnic benches. Grunting, Norm takes a seat and unclips the leash from my collar. At last I join the crew. ExCITEment! We play tag for about an hour, when a newcomer called Wolf suddenly barges in and scares away the meeker dogs, who go running back to their besties.
I play a little longer, avoiding Wolf, then rejoin Norm at the picnic table. I can smell he’s had his one smoke of the day. He thinks I don’t notice. He thinks the smell is all gone because he can’t smell it. Oh Norm, Norm, you dear silly liar. He hasn’t touched his latte. Maybe he does want to switch to almond milk.
I want to interrupt his chatter with Belinda, who is Biff’s best friend, and warn Norm about the newcomer, Wolf, but he’s busy yakking to Belinda about his boat. “I would sail it around more,” Norm says, “but Rex here gets seasick.”
Norm has no boat. I don’t get seasick.
I tilt my head at Norm to convey my displeasure. Why am I always the scapegoat?
“Isn’t that right, Rex?” Norm says, reaching over and stroking the underside of my snout. He scratches the base of my tail. He knows I love that, especially after a big run-about. I stick out my tongue and pant with joy.
“Hey, why don’t we get a dog sitter some evening,” Belinda says, “and you and me and a bunch of these other dog-owners here can go sailing?” Biff looks at her with alarm. It’s always a nasty surprise to hear your best friend making plans without you.
“He-e-e-ey, great idea,” Norm says to Belinda, and his mouth goes extra wide, like it does when he says, “He-e-e-ey, treat time,” and gives me a de-worming pill instead. “But I can’t take time off from work just yet—we’re short-staffed.” I can smell his anxiety now. I nudge him vigorously with my snout to say, let’s get away from Belinda, the boat maniac.
“What’s that, Rex?” Norm says to me. “Whassup, whassup?”
“New dog—Wolf,” I say. Norm pretends not to understand.
I bark. “New dog—Wolf!” I say. I play and tumble in a way that I know my bestie enjoys watching. After he gives a suitable amount of gratitude in the form of tummy rubs, I run off and empty my bowels near a tree.
Norm trudges behind with his little plastic bag, collects my stool, and knots the bag. He wrinkles his nose. “Come on, Norm,” I say, panting, “you reek to high heaven too when you sit on your white throne once a day. Do you ever see me complain?”
Just then I catch sight of Wolf claiming a hillock twenty yards away. Barking. Wolf is a half-size Husky with golden eyes and top-dog attitude. I’m okay, I’m secure enough in my caninimity to accept Wolf’s leadership but, I’m just saying, maybe not all dogs are this way.
Like Priscilla. Watch out for Priscilla. She’s a total bitch diva, half pit bull, half shark. She’s nice if you acknowledge she’s alpha. Priscilla is not here at the moment, lucky for Wolf, so he thinks he is the king of the hillock and leader of the pack. This is okay for the moment—the pack needs a leader—but it won’t be so good when Priscilla arrives and we have to declare whose side we’re on.
* * *
The weather is perfect and the herd wants to linger. Norm and the other best friends gather to admire us dogs as we frolic. Oh, they pretend to be indifferent, chatting to other humans, and fiddling with their phones, but that is to disguise their envy. They wish they could run about naked as freely as we do, barking loudly at things that upset them. Urinating at will. Sniffing genitals—who does not want to sniff genitals in the park on a lazy Saturday? “It’s a lovely day for doggy play,” is really what Norm should have said to Juliet at the coffee shop.
Suddenly Norm sees the man Rocky, who is killer Priscilla’s best friend. I can smell Norm’s anxiety whenever we are around Rocky, especially if it’s hot and Rocky is in a sweaty undershirt, showing his muscles. If Norm were a dog, he would bark like crazy. But instead he keeps quiet, nods to Rocky, and even lets him use his lighter.
“Hey, how’s it hanging?” Rocky says.
“Fine, just fine,” Norm says, just as slow and casual.
“New set of wheels?” Rocky nods toward three cars parked at the curb.
“Yup,” Norm says. I stop and sit and watch. Norm does not even have a car.
Priscilla sees me, comes over and sits down, panting sympathetically. She is all tooth and brawn but I can tell she’s trying to be nice. “You realize Rocky wants someone to drag race with, right?” she says, rolling her eyes. As usual, when speaking dog-to-dog we pitch our voices beyond the range that humans can hear.
“Oh, great,” I whimper.
“Do you got a problem with that?” she says.
“The ‘set’ of wheels is actually a pair of wheels,” I say. “He’s a cyclist.”
“Oh. Well. Rocky hates cyclists,” Priscilla says, her words dripping disdain. I see the sun glinting from her sharp triangular teeth. Then she up and swaggers away. Something tells me this is the last time we’ll ever speak. Until she’s in heat, that is. Then it will just be: “Where are you?” and “Again?”
* * *
Wolf’s best friend strolls over a while later, followed by Wolf. I’m so shocked I drop my Sponge Bob chew toy. It bounces and lands right at the feet of Juliet. She picks it up and wags it at me. “Who’s a good dog?” she says, smiling sweetly. Now I am in love with Juliet—just as much as Norm is.
Norm and Juliet exchange shy, slightly surprised looks. I smell Norm’s potential-mate interest, so I run over to Wolf and act like a silly pup. I’m a lover, not a fighter, and Wolf nods benignly to one and all, as long as you accept that he’s alpha.
“Hello Sam,” Juliet says.
“Hello, Juliet,” Norm says. “You’re new to the dog park… or do you usually come at a different time?”
“I am new,” she says. “I’m the owner-manager of Kamasutra Koffee so I’ve moved nearby to keep an eye on things,” she says, tucking a strand of red hair behind her ear.
“Owner?” Norm says.
“Uh-huh.” She stares at him defiantly. “Is that a shock to you, that I’m not just a lil old airhead barista?”
“No, not a shock at all! You seem like a very responsible person.”
She smiles forgivingly. “Don’t worry, we’ll get your order right next time.”
They share a small laugh. I tilt my head at Norm, trying to convey that right now would be the very best moment to come clean. To confess that he used a fake name to impress her, that he made up a fake problem just to spend a minute talking to her, and that he would very much like to mate with her. If not right now, then next time she’s in heat. But no.
I sigh and trot over to Wolf. More damage control. That’s what I’ve got to do for my best friend. “Just to set the record straight, his name is Norman, not Sam. And he never takes almond milk in his coffee. That was just an excuse to prolong the moment with your bestie.”
Wolf nods. “Anything else?”
I tilt my head. “And he doesn’t own a boat. Or a car. And he’s never had a vasectomy.”
“Got it. Let’s go chase the other dogs!”
* * *
When we come back, panting, ready for our belly rubs, Norm and Juliet are deep into conversation. They ignore us until we start to play-fight and bark noisily. Then we get the belly rubs… for two minutes. Then the two start talking again. It’s obvious they’d rather belly-rub each other.
“Yes, I was a pediatric neurosurgeon,” Norm is saying, “until my hand injury.” He holds out his right hand, doing his double-jointed trick with three of his fingers.
Juliet says, “Ooo, how’d that happen?”
“Have you ever been to a carnival featuring the world’s greatest knife thrower?” Norm asks. “And where he asks for a volunteer from the audience?”
Juliet rears back, half-laughing in disbelief. “Ah, no…”
Norm laughs. “Yeah, me neither.” He rubs his supposedly disfigured hand and says, “It didn’t happen that way. I did it the old, stupid way. Slammed it in a car door by accident.”
“Oooh…ouch!” she says.
“Oh yeah. Problem is, I didn’t simply break the bones; I crushed them. You know those tiny little phalangeal bones? They had to fuse them. It was either that or amputate. But they’re useless now. I can’t play piano, either.”
I turn to Wolf and say, “That part is true: he can’t play piano—never has.”
“Ooh, how dreadful,” Juliet says to Norm. “But you can still see patients, right? Make diagnoses, right? Just leave the surgery to others.”
“Not really.” Norm’s voice becomes choked. “It’s too… too harsh… I felt so damn frustrated… I had to quit medicine altogether.”
“Yeah, I work in insurance now. Claims adjuster.”
A slow smile works its way across Juliet’s face. It is the same kind of smile, a recognition, that all the women eventually give to Norm. “Claims adjuster?” she says. “So you’re the one who has to investigate and find which parts of the damage the customer is exaggerating?”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“Well, it’s been fun talking but I gotta go.” She picks up Wolf’s leash and clips it to his collar. It feels like the temperature has dropped.
Norm watches, stunned.
I bark at Wolf, a friendly yip: “Well, so long! It was fun playing chase!”
“Yeah, same here,” Wolf says, “And for the record, her name’s not Juliet. We don’t live near here. And she’s never owned a coffee shop.”
Norm’s face grows longer, sadder. It’s time to get my best friend home. Boy do I need some kibble! And a nap! I pester him until he clips on my leash. I drag him out of the park, past Rocky and Priscilla, past Belinda and Biff.
Wolf keeps barking, spilling the beans as he and Juliet leave.
It’s a pity to see them go. Our best friends have so much in common.